For Pete's Sake

Jim Curtin is pressing all the right buttons

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Six weeks ago, I argued that Jim Curtin deserved to be fired.

Things sure have changed since then, huh?

With the Union winners of four in a row (somehow a franchise record), Curtin appears firmly free from the hot seat. Where he deserved blame for a poor start, he also deserves credit for a good run.

Consider the following decisions by Curtin, all made under pressure.

First, Curtin realized that stabilizing the backline — previously as leaky as a sunroof left open during a thunderstorm — is the only way that the team would find a win. To do it, Curtin benched two players who played almost every minute last season — Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry — and deputized a late-round draft pick into a starting role. Though there are still questions about Gaddis’s long-term suitability as the starter and the impending return of Josh Yaro, it’s tough to argue with results. Just one goal allowed in five games is an impressive mark.

Similarly, the midfield looked completely imbalanced with Alejandro Bedoya playing attacking midfield. More worryingly, it put the team’s best player in a position where he could not maximize his potential. Curtin rejiggered the midfield, sidelining Derrick Jones and bringing in Roland Alberg to play ahead of Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. While Alberg’s play left something to be desired, Bedoya and Medunjanin settled into roles that maximized their best attributes, offering a stable line in front of the defense and steadying an oft-sinking ship.

With Alberg hurt and ineffective, and Bedoya locking down the no. 8 role, Curtin make the unexpected choice to insert Ilsinho — almost exclusively a winger in his Union career — in the middle of the park. The results have been impressive. Ilsinho brings a better balance of creativity and defensive intensity (as Adam pointed out this week) than either Alberg or Bedoya. He’s notched one goal, drawn a penalty, come close to scoring a bunch more times, and generally sparked the offense to life. Every player on the offensive side of the ball has looked sharper since Ilsinho moved inside. The Union are more fun when Ilsinho is, to borrow a phrase, “trying shit” — and it turns out that they’re more likely to win, too.

Then, coming off the club’s first win of the season, Curtin chose all the right lineups in a week with three games in eight days. An unchanged side defeated D.C. last Saturday and Houston in midweek. Then, against Colorado, Curtin uncharacteristically chose to sit both Chris Pontius and Fabinho in favor of Fabian Herbers and Giliano Wijnaldum. Though Herbers suffered an injury, this choice did treat us to a promising debut at left back from the Dutch import, and the Union still left with three points. The manager may viscerally hate the term “squad rotation,” but he practiced it perfectly on Saturday.

There’s no doubt that Jim Curtin is riding high at the moment — as well he should be. The manager finally has the Union pointing in the right direction.

How much weight do we give four games?

Given these last six weeks, it’s worth revisiting the judgment I (and many observers) made in April about Curtin’s ability as a manager.

In soccer — as in sports more generally, as in life even more generally — it’s tough to decide how much weight to give to recent events, compared to our longstanding preexisting beliefs.

Curtin has been the Union’s manager for long enough now to where most fans and media have their opinions about him rather set. Curtin, too, presents an image to the world of someone who knows who he is and is immune to change.

These last six weeks, however, have been a reminder that people aren’t set in stone.

Accused of playing favorites and making errors in talent evaluation, Curtin found a lineup that works, even sacrificing some perceived favorite players to do so. Challenged to come up with a set of tactics that could get results, Curtin rebuilt his team around defense and finally got his players on the same tactical page.

It’s important to view four games in the larger context, of course. There isn’t proof that Curtin is a great manager.

But Curtin has so thoroughly answered his critics over these last six weeks that I can now say that my April column was wrong.

Jim Curtin may not be a manager who can take this team to MLS Cup.

But he’s shown more than enough to keep his job this season.

18 Comments

  1. Been mulling this over myself lately. I was convinced he needed to be fired. Perhaps my opinion is based on the fact that I have a pretty steady diet of football in other leagues where this season’s start would have absolutely ended in a swift sacking. But just as much as I blamed Curtin for this team’s failings over the season’s start, I have to give him credit for this run of wins.

    I also have to say that even when I thought he needed to be fired in order for this team to turn things around, I continue to admire him for his overall demeanor — his honesty,the way he handles the pressure, the players and the media (though I still think his lashing out at Kinkead was a bit bizarre and out of character).

    In sum, I’m really happy to be wrong. Perhaps a better manager could get more out of this team, but I’m very happy to see us get results with Curtin in charge. He’s an underdog manager for an underdog team.

    • Regarding the Kinkead comments, I think Jim was creating a bunker mentality for his team. “It’s us against the world. No one believes in us. I do, I think we’re good, and I’m going to stick up for you.”
      .
      That kind of stuff is infuriating to fans, but that’s how you build success. You don’t motivate players by being honest and pragmatic.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I am actually thinking Jim Curtin can be a bit surly and I like it. Wining a few games is taking him off the defensive where he’s been steadily held over the back burner and is now likely asserting his willingness to be sharper with his tongue. Happened this week too in his post game presser when a reporter asked about the team not playing well at home.
      .

  2. pragmatist says:

    I’m thinking that the SoB need to do a Fresh Prince tifo to honor the timing of the turnaround of the team.
    .
    It’s articles like this that reinforce the idea that I am very happy the people in charge of teams are not fans first. They have a job and a vision that they want to see carried out. This, as well as the interview with JC serve to demonstrate that our hyperventilations were not being echoed in the front office. And as of right now, that’s a damn good thing.
    .
    As for the question: “How much weight do we give four games?” Not much, honestly. It’s a 34 game season. The current level has to be maintained. Dips and swells are expected for any team, but we cannot get mired back into the morass that has drowned this team in the past. So the real question is, Will Jim be able to make further adjustments when the current setup goes stale? If he can continue to steer the ship correctly, as we all truly hope, then amen. Otherwise…we’ll hop into the Wayback Machine and start our sniping again.
    .
    That said…I’m optimistic that lessons have been learned. We’ll just repeat the common refrain that we hope he doesn’t run certain players (CJ, Bedoya, Haris, Pontius) into the ground. Give guys a break and recognize that Squad Rotation is not an urban myth.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      How much weight? Maybe 12% if winning is your critical success factor

    • While it’s conceivable, and perhaps even likely, that those in charge of the Union have maintained an unwavering faith in the club’s “process” to date, let me offer a possible alternative view of recent events:
      .
      In early May, Dan Walsh channels the growing anger and frustration of Union fans into a letter aimed, laser-like, at the club’s owner, Jay Sugarman.
      .
      Within a day or two, Sugarman feels compelled to pen a public response to Walsh’s correspondence.
      .
      Clearly annoyed by the uncomfortable position he has been placed in, Sugarman lets his sporting director and head coach know that, if the team’s fortunes don’t take a turn for the better, his next public comments will be to discuss the replacement of one or more members of the Union’s coaching/management staff.
      .
      Energized by the club owner’s ultimatum, both the sporting director and the head coach begin to shake things up in the Union locker room. The sporting director, for instance, takes a less-than-subtle jab at his players by publicly suggesting that they aren’t yet capable of grasping the team’s formation and tactics. The head coach, for his part, makes some changes to his game-day lineups, while also letting loose with a few previously-unseen public displays of anger (on the sideline and in the press conference).
      .
      Rising to the challenge, and facing some lousy competition, the Union players collectively lift their performance levels and take off on a 4-game (and more?) win streak.
      .
      .
      Seems plausible to me.

      • pragmatist says:

        It would be the most motivated this owner has been since he started this organization. While plausible, it would be shocking.

      • i don’t believe that people respond to threat incentives like this. my experience is that if you directly threaten to fire someone it creates a toxic dysfunctional environment rather than one of hard work or problem solving. it also assumes that stewart and curtin weren’t as interested in winning until they were threatened by the owner which just doesn’t seem plausible to me.

  3. scottymac says:

    If you were hasty in wanting him fired, you’re as hasty in defending him. The results of the first 8 matches were on his head. And he should be credited for getting the team in the right position to win he last four. Would a good coach need to flail for 8 matches before,essentially, getting over himself to make the right lineup moves?
    .
    What we’re talking about, isn’t that they got new players, it’s that Curtin fixed the problem, which was Curtin. Admittedly he they had a slightly harder schedule to open and an easier one recently. If he gets 10 in the next 15, he’ll have them back on track to mid table mediocrity. If not, you may be witnessing his ceiling as a coach.

    • I honestly think Jim has a high ceiling and it seems several others do as well. As long as he continues to improve as a coach, I’m willing to allow him to develop. It’s similar to a young player (and Jim is a young coach), they are going to make mistakes. The question is do they continue to develop and improve.
      .
      So far, we’ve seen continuous improvement from Jim (even if it’s not as quick as we’d all prefer). As long as he continues to improve and he doesn’t lose the locker room, I’m ok with sticking with him.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      The changes he made were logical and pretty well obvious from my POV and the POV of many here….like having Fafa Picault in starting lineup. I give him credit — but its his job and I’m certainly still circumspect about him in the long haul—that said, I also think trusting the Sporting Director is needed and he knows this team is not threatened with relegation, is not reaching into deep pockets for players who bring a cache this manager may not be able to match and if Earnie likes a young manager and is willing to help him grow then we all need to trust his judgement…as he says, he’s there everyday observing.
      .
      We can say what we want but amidst upheaval and turmoil and generally poor play, the team stayed together and the skipper deserves credit for that—- above all.
      .
      I also think getting used to Haris has taken some time which not incidentally has been quickened by his partnership with Alejandro… a savvy player who understands and communicates the game.
      .
      Unfortunately that may come at the expense of Derrick Jones getting starting time for the next three years which is a WHOLE other discussion.

      • Jones will get plenty of time in July if Bedoya is on the Gold Cup Roster.
        .
        And that’s not to mention Open Cup. With our depth and this year and an easy road we should be able to successfully trot out a team with 6 or 7 substitutes and compete the first few rounds.

      • scottymac says:

        We may as well trust his judgment as it doesn’t matter regardless. This is the team. THis is the coach.

    • John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

      Eight games is not really fair considering four were ties not losses. Also taking into account that they blew a three goal lead and then tied LA away in the next game 0-0 starting a run of four wins with only giving up one goal in the next five games…surprising. I can’t say a tie in Vancouver and against Toronto (the Cup runner-up) at home are failures in a 34 game season. Lucky for Jim, Ernie seems to have more faith in him than some of the posters on PSP.

  4. My general rule is you can only judge a season (in terms of projection, people losing jobs, major changes, etc) after a quarter of a season. So for MLS that would be about 8-9 games. For this reason, I was on the “things need to change” boat. Personally, I was more in favor of a more drastic approach like firing JC or relieving ES of his duties. The club, however, made more subtle changes: benching 2 of JCs favorites from last year, (among other things in training, locker room, fitness, etc. i’m sure). So now the waiting game continues for me. We are 3 games into the next “quarter” of the season and we already have more points than the first partition. I think more changes will be made along the way (injury, people coming back from injury, international duty, signing a DP no. 10, etc.) but for me we are trending as a club upwards.

  5. The Chopper says:

    Well unless the Union go on a massive losing streak, Curtin has bought himself a full season to be evaluated. I doubt there will be a mid season sacking.

    Much of the angst including my own was connected with a losing streak that dated back to last season, but last season really is irrelevant when you think about it. This is a different Union roster.
    The MLS pre season is very short. There is not a great deal of time to try different lineups and combinations and truly sense if they are working. So you go in with a plan, (Bedoya is our 10) and try to make it work and if it doesn’t there is really no time to work on Plan B. Plus trying to see what to do with all the other new pieces, like Harris, Jones, Gooch, Simpson, Fafa etc. The window is too short, so much of it has to sort out in the early phases of the regular season. That short pre season was certainly not enough time to get the Rust off of Gooch. Now that the rust is off and he is in better shape, the Gooch on the field currently has been a big part of the defense that has given up 1 goal in 5 games. That isn’t the same guy who was on the field at the start of the season.

    So time has been Curtin’s friend along with Earnie Stewart’s patience. Credit the coach for making the neccesary change to get the most out what he has.

    • The plan wasn’t Bedoya at the 10 though, it was Alberg and he came into comp ion such bad shape that he was unplayable. Put on top of that Ilsinho and Fafa and Creavalle picking up injuries before the season started, Pontius-Bedoya-Rosenberry being with the national team and it’s really not a surprise that we started slow.

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